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A man’s attire on a body like Shen Zhen’s was a true treat for the eyes. The chest that should have been flat bulged in an enticing fashion. The hips that should have been narrow only accentuated a thin waist. Everything in those clothes led the eye through a sinuous path along Shen Zhen’s silhouette.
Lu Yan’s hand never left her lower back as he poured her another cup of wine, bringing it to her mouth. She drank obediently. Every time he poured another cup, she drank obediently. The strong aroma of the wine filled her nose. Her pale skin flushed after a few cups. He had said the wine was not intoxicating … Maybe was it the hand that caressed her through the fabric of the menswear, making shivers run down her lower back, then.
Lu Yan, for his part, was intoxicated by the woman in his arms. No wine could ever give him this delicious sense of languor that a pair of dark, silky eyes provided. He reached out to slowly caress her ear, bowing his head to kiss the corner of her eye affectionately. There was an unmatched pleasure in seeing her tilt her head and offer her face to him, closing her eyes to welcome his lips and opening them an instant later to stare at him.
Lu Yan’s expression was soft, clashing with the ever-present coldness of his voice.
“Why do you cry so much?”
“But I never used to cry before”, Shen Zhen immediately retorted in surprise.
Those who said that wine gave courage were right indeed. Reaching for her jaw, he squeezed it mercilessly, making her pout her lips in a comic fashion.
“Oh? I assume it is I who make you cry this much.”
Shen Zhen lowered her head, unable to continue looking at the handsome man in front of her. He did not try to cajole her either, only caressing her waist persistently, not stopping an instant in his strokes. Seeing as she was not answering, he reached for the curtain covering the window by their side. As he lifted it, he softly gripped Shen Zhen’s shoulder, directing her gaze towards the picturesque scene outside. Her eyes followed Lu Yan’s forefinger. A cool breeze blew soft tendrils of her hair aside. Outside thousands of fires and lanterns raged through the night. Thinking of something, Shen Zhen’s expression dimmed.
After a while, she turned her head, her hazy eyes looking up at the profile of the handsome man by her side.
“Your Lordship, may I ask you something?”
Lu Yan met her hesitant gaze. Raising an elegant eyebrow, he pursed his lips into a mocking smile, looking at his drunk little beauty.
“Why does Your Lordship dislike my crying?”
Shen Zhen had wanted to ask him this for such a long time. She had just never mustered the courage to question this mercurial man.
Lu Yan did not bat an eye, instantly answering.
“Who likes seeing people cry?!”
Subconsciously, he reached for the bridge of his nose, rubbing at it energetically. What else could he have said?! Could he have told her that whenever she shed would it be a tear, he felt like his heart was being pierced by a blazing fire iron?!
Unexpectedly, Shen Zhen reached for his hand suddenly. Leaning in, she softly whispered towards him, her fragrant breath brushing over his lips.
“Won’t Your Lordship promise me something? I promise not to cry anymore if he does.”
Lu Yan smirked, playfully grabbing her chin and softly shaking her head. Who was this daring woman and what had she done with Shen Zhen?!
“Are you trying to negotiate terms with this Lord now?!”
Shen Zhen rewarded him with the most radiant of smiles, one that was as tender as it was arch. He had never seen her smile in such a way. She generally greeted him with her perfect, practiced, curated expressions that concealed all her emotions behind a perfect porcelain mask.
“Maybe I am. Does Your Lordship agree?”, she purred, her eyes drowsily narrowing into two slits.
Lu Yan let go of her chin, feeling the grain of her skin lingering on the tip of his fingers. He grabbed onto a cup of wine, drowning it to extinguish the fire in his body and failing at it miserably.
Shen Zhen reached out for his waist, hugging it insistently. She buried her head into his chest, rubbing at it, spoiled and capricious.
“No. Your Lordship has to promise first.”
Lu Yan peeled himself away from her in shock and was once more bedazzled by Shen Zhen’s languorous, seductive appearance.
“Does Your Lordship agree? Please do.”
He was left absolutely shaken. No one, in this wide world, had ever tried to negotiate with Lu Yan. No one, in this wide world, had ever had the absolute nerve to demand that Lu Yan agreed to something. To something that he knew nothing about it. The more he thought about it, the more rage griped him. What arrogant extravagance, what enormity, was this manipulative woman trying to make him agree upon?! It must have been absolutely horrifying if she needed him to agree before even telling him what it was about!
Seeing as Lu Yan was working himself up, Shen Zhen used all the knowledge she had gathered on him to placate him. The hand on his waist moved towards the front and a tantalizing forefinger teased the path between his sternum and below his navel. Lu Yan was immediately stopped in his tracks. He looked down at her recalcitrant little hand, robbed of all his anger.
Shen Zhen and Lu Yan could not be more different in temperament. He spoiled her depending on his mood. And he took her when he pleased. He had no respect for her desires and opinions. He could not brook any resistance, disobedience and especially refusal.
He was a man of the world. He was an official at the Supreme Court. He had seen horror, he had seen crimes, he had seen grieving mothers, raped children. He knew, he intimately knew, what was right and what was wrong. And he knew himself to be in the wrong. He knew himself to have wronged Shen Zhen. Lu Yan knew he had coerced, violated, defiled, humiliated, intimidated her. And he had never cared. Not one bit.
This was the order of their world. The East Wind prevailed over the West Wind. The strong prevailed over the weak. The powerful crushed the powerless. He had been raised in such a world. He was the son of a Princess Royal, beloved by her Imperial Brother. He was the favored nephew of the Emperor. He was power. The laws he enforced could not be enforced on him. However, he had never thought that one day he would have a taste of a hundred forged swords turned into a soft finger. Looking at that unwavering gaze that filtered through her long eyelashes, sly and calculating, Lu Yan’s heart plummeted.
Shen Zhen, in our past life, did you lie to me in such a way?
How could such a man as himself, who so openly, without the slightest feeling of guilt, admitted his own crimes and put them on the account of the world he lived in not understand that there was a world counterpart of his own. A world she inhabited. The weak might have had no recourse when they were trampled underfoot by the strong. However, they could develop means of survival in a society that was rigged against them.
When Lu Yan had dragged the gentle daughter of Marquis Yunyang into this affair of blood and tears, when he had relegated her to the rank of cheap prostitute, had he not given her access to him? Had he not slept in her bed, had he not eaten at her table? Every minute he had spent with her, either tortured by desire or basking in post-coital bliss, she had spent observing him clearheadedly. Observing his habits, his facial expressions, the stimuli that triggered reactions in him. She knew by which handle to grab him for her own benefit. Like any prostitute. And as any prostitute, she negotiated her fare. All of this, her silks and jewelry, her servants and dwelling were a payment for her practiced, curated performances. Her demanding to be humored in a new fashion was nothing but a renegotiation of their terms.
Lu Yan drank two cups of wine in a row, his hands trembling. Defeated and dazed, he could but agree. Looking down with indistinct emotion into her eyes, he heard himself begging her without being able to control the tone of his own voice.
“Will you tell me now?”
Shen Zhen’s eyes lit up in triumph. She leaned further into Lu Yan, as if to reward him for his tractability. Her full lips found his ear once more, stroking it to the point of madness. She whispered to him as if she was to reveal a great secret.
“Once we are back in Chang’an, I wish to visit Daxingshan Temple.”
Her alcoholic breath spilled into his ear and brushed over his eyes, making them hot. Lu Yan’s fingers tightened around the cup of wine he held.
“What do you want to do there?”
Shen Zhen bowed her head, making it almost rest against his shoulder. Her voice lost all of its playfulness.
“The seventh of March is my mother’s deathday.”
Chang’an was no better than Yangzhou for her. Once they got back, Shen Zhen knew she would find herself encaged once more behind the high walls of Chengyuan. Lu Yan was taken aback. He felt as if something was stifling him. That triumphant gleam in her eyes, the seductive smiles and superhuman effort to wrench this promise out of him were all so deeply tragic. More tragic than her pathetic efforts was the fact there was a child in this world that needed to battle, to beg, to drag itself in mud to have the right to honor her parents. Thinking of his own overbearing, demanding, tyrannical mother, Lu Yan softly touched Shen Zhen’s head, swallowing with difficulty.
“I will take you.”
Shen smiled once more.
“Thank you, Your Lordship.”
All men loved for women to smile at them. These smiles were a sort of excuse for all the crimes men committed against them. But to Lu Yan that smile of hers, bestowed with such gratefulness, was a reminder of his sins. An uncomfortable silence fell between the two of them. Shen Zhen appeared to be impermeable to the sensation, however Lu Yan felt it keenly, especially with her head resting against his shoulder. After a while, the rustling sound of a xiao flute reached their ears, with Shen Zhen accompanying the rhythm with the drumming of her fingers against the window sill.
(Translator’s Note: The xiao (箫) is a long, vertical end-blown bamboo flute. It is also slang for f*******.)
She was obviously overwhelmed by the wine, the night, the music and the heat coming from Lu Yan’s body. As their boat was approaching a bridge on which stood a fair maiden, a small barque came their way. A light voice resounded from the barque, obviously addressing the girl on the bridge.
“Does the miss play the xiao flute?”
The maiden leaned over the ramp, trying to make out the face of the young master who was addressing her so familiarly.
“Mo’er only plays the pipa, not the xiao flute.”
The man sneered at her with contempt.
“Don’t pretend you don’t understand. This Master does not care about the pipa, he is just asking whether you play or not!”
He was a persistent sort, that young master. He was very adamant about wanting to listen to the xiao flute.
“How about you come over? This Master will give you two copper coins.”
Hearing as much, Lu Yan quickly reached over, covering Shen Zhen’s ears. She turned her head trying to escape the touch, staring at Lu Yan aggrievedly. Shen Zhen, livelier than she had ever been, pulled at Lu Yan’s hands, wanting to continue listening to the faraway xiao flute and the gossip between the maiden and the young master. Thinking she might make him more well-disposed towards him, she whispered in a confidential manner:
“You Lordship, I play the xiao flute.”
Lu Yan felt his spine stiffening, his Adam’s apple rolling up and down with difficulty. He would skin those filthy perverts alive, the man as much as the woman. He had deliberately rented out a boat for the two of them alone so they could escape lechers. But of course, it was impossible for the two of them to spend an agreeable and innocent evening together.
Shen Zhen, believing herself liberated from all conventions by a few cups of wine, intertwined her fingers with his, proudly announcing all of her accomplishments.
“Your Lordship, not only do I play the xiao flute, I also play the pipa!”
Lu Yan could not listen any longer.
He crushed her lips with his, letting go of all his self-restraint. At first, Shen Zhen was startled. However, surprising the both of them, she answered his advances with a newfound enthusiasm, very uncharacteristic of her. As his tongue penetrated her mouth, it was met with an energetic counterpart that sent violent shivers down Lu Yan’s spine.
Snaking an arm around her waist, he vigorously hoisted Shen Zhen up, carrying her towards a bed at the stern of the boat. As she was laid on her back, her hair escaped the crown on her head, giving her a seductively dishevelled look. Shen Zhen’s tongue pointed from between her pearl-white teeth, licking the corner of her mouth in a catlike manner, feeding the fire in the pit of Lu Yan’s stomach.
The Gods knew he had truly only wanted to take her out and show her the scenery!
With trembling fingers, Lu Yan slowly slid the menswear off Shen Zhen’s body. Exposing an expanse of alabaster skin, cold in appearance but so warm to the touch. Every time he looked down on such a Shen Zhen, Lu Yan could feel tremors shaking him to the soul, threatening him with the possibility he would lose control over his own actions. However, Lu Yan was a man who could not bear the idea of losing control. This temptation was a challenge to his willpower. His teeth closed upon her ear.
“I will gentle. Don’t be afraid”, he whispered.
She did not seem to be listening to his assurances, grabbing onto collar of his own attire and energetically pulling it apart to reveal his chest. This newfound hunger of hers was as enchanting as it was frightening. Lu Yan was not used to having Shen Zhen’s cool fingers slipping into his clothes and travelling across his skin territorially. The veins on his neck bulged threateningly as he felt her well-kept fingers scratching at his lower abdomen in a provoking manner.
Although Shen Zhen was daringly testing his self-restraint, Lu Yan knew he could not be greedy, for fear of hurting her. He had enough patience to explore every inch of her body. What he did not have enough of were hands and lips to worship every part of her as it deserved. His expert fingers slid between her soft thighs, exploring that most secret place, knowingly plucking a cord that made her produce, maybe for the first time of their intimate acquaintance, a soul-stirring sound.
Rather than trying to push his insistent fingers away as she usually did, Shen Zhen parted her legs, giving Lu Yan all the access and letting herself be submerged by pleasure. The aroma of wine, the fine smell of agarwood that had started pervading the air the moment she had pushed Lu Yan’s clothes aside, the addictive feeling that persistently travelled up and down her spine, everything drove her insane.
After a while, Shen Zhen arched her body, her breathing quickening, her head shaking from one side to the other before she sagged, as if robbed of all her energy. Her lip was bitten to the point of blood from a desire to stifle moans and cries that had filtered nonetheless from between her clenched teeth.
This posture of pure, unadulterated abandonment in a woman must have been every man’s favorite sight. In fact, there was a special gratification, a gratification no orgasm could bring, in making a woman drown in pleasure. However, Lu Yan had exhausted all of his patience and could not fight the temptation any longer.
The night was dark. The new room reflected against the placid surface of the lake, making the water sparkle softly. The boat, on the other hand, shook and swayed, disrupting the general peacefulness of the scene.
At one point, the moans, whimpers and low cries that filtered through the curtain covering the window morphed into shrill, albeit sweet, scream, making frightened fish scatter through the water and even the moon shrouded itself in a passing cloud.
Lu Yan, propped up on his hands, panting and sweaty, looked down at the woman below him, too shocked and dazed to realize what had just happened. Never before had Shen Zhen been so active. Her hands on his skin, the way she would urge him, undulating against his body, caressing his hips with her legs, burying her fingers into his hair and demanding kisses with insistence. Who was this woman he was meeting for the first time, stripped from all of Shen Zhen’s discipline and aloofness?!
He felt the leg that had been thrown over his hip sliding from it and falling to the side. A hand squarely landed on his chest, pushing at it resolutely. She wanted him to get off. She was replete with pleasure, her eyes narrowed into two fine slits and her mouth opening in a satisfied yawn. The only thing disturbing her was that heavy body partially crushing hers. The corner of Lu Yan’s mouth quivered in displeasure. He did remove himself from her, making her wince lightly before she hastily turned to her side and offered him her back.
It was difficult for Lu Yan to understand the feeling of emptiness he experienced, seeing as Shen Zhen carelessly shut him out to partake in her rest, without a thought for him now that she was satisfied. However, he did not have the strength to peel himself from her. Rather, he hugged her from behind, his nose caressing the nape of her neck. Soon enough, the familiar fragrance of her skin lulled him to sleep.
Yet another memory flooded his mind.
The memory brought Lu Yan back to the March third in the sixteenth year of Yuanqing.
Lu Yan had been left standing in the Hall of the Imperial Court at the demand of the Emperor while the other courtiers were permitted to withdraw.
The Emperor, seated on his platform, raised a hand, making his eunuchs immediately retreat to the sides, blending in with the walls. Emperor Cheng Yuan twisted the mala beads of his Buddhist bracelet in a fashion that reminded of his nephew’s habit of playing with the jadeite ring on his finger.
“Sanlang, you have done well in Yangzhou.”
Lu Yan immediately fell to his knees, giving the Emperor the lowest of bows.
“Most of the evidence was burned. It is this lowly servant’s fault.”
Emperor Cheng Yuan did not immediately refute Lu Yan’s words. In fact, his tone was as cold as his eyes when he replied.
“How can Our Sanlang be blamed. Who could have imagined they would set the boat aflame?”
The Emperor retrieved a stack of documents behind his back, leisurely flipping through the papers.
“Trafficking salt to cast weapons and hire private soldiers … Does Sanlang have an idea about which of Our Imperial Sons would have engaged in such a business?”
The Emperor’s eyes were more trenchant than the steel of any forged sword. He was and felt humiliated. And Lu Yan was a witness to his humiliation. Though he did feel affection for his nephew, he needed, at this instant, to rake him over the coals.
“Your Majesty, this lowly servant does not dare to make arrogant surmises?”
Lu Yan was quite attached to his own head and did not wish to endanger it in any manner. He did not need for any of his revered cousins to come after him, especially since he was close to none of them. However, this sort of situation was nothing unexpected.
Since the death of the first Empress Consort, the Crown Prince had become weak and sickly almost overnight, his lungs corroded to the point he spent days and nights coughing blood, hidden in the darkest corners of the Eastern Palace. Of course, such a Crown Prince could not help but to exacerbate the hunger for power of the other princes. And their respective factions. The Emperor, for his part, had been obviously veiling his face. Which father would want to admit one of his one sons, if not all of them, were plotting to cut his lifeline short?
And what sons! On one side, the Third Prince had been born to Noble Concubine Mu, whose father was none other than the all-conquering General Mu. On the other side, the Sixth prince was the son of Empress Consort Xu, of the Prime Minister’s Xu Household. And apart from these two tigers, there were other princes in between. Less favored, less well-supported, and the more ambitious for it. Who, in this Imperial City, was not awaiting for the Crown Prince to finally die?!
“Our nights are restless. Sleep does not come easily to Us. Can Sanlang guess why?”
Lu Yan replied with a standard formulation.
“Your Majesty worries for the sake of the kingdom, for the stability and peace at court, for the wellbeing of the people.”
Such cheap praise still brought great pleasure to an Emperor such as Cheng Yuan. However, he was not stupid enough to believe in its sincerity. Grinning slightly, he placed a hand over his eyes, slowly massaging his temples.
“Sanlang, Uncle is tired.”
Lu Yan’s heart sank, knowing he was being led into a dangerous trap.
“This lowly servant is willing to share Your Majesty’s worries”, he murmured cautiously.
Emperor Cheng Yuan did not remove his hand from his aching temple, coughing ever so slightly.
“We remember you wrote in a report you had crossed paths with a genius doctor in Yangzhou.”
Emperor Cheng Yuan caressed his chin pensively.
“It would not be bad if the Crown Prince could be seen by him. Can you still find him?”
Lu Yan understood at once. Divide and reign. The Emperor was planning on showing favor towards the Crown Prince, going as far as hoping he could restore some of his health, as to deflect attention from imperial power and focus the other princes back onto the Crown Prince. What a loving father, indeed.
“This lowly servant is willing to set off immediately for Yangzhou.”
The Emperor waved a careless hand.
“We do not need your services immediately. You will be sent back to Yangzhou quick enough. Go spend some time with your mother. If We were to monopolize you, she would not forgive Us.”
Mentioning Princess Royal Jing’an, a tender smile appeared on Emperor Cheng Yuan’s cold face. Children of a same mother, soldiers who had fought the wars of the harem together, each other’s only true, unwavering love. Brother and sister.
Lu Yan observed that smile sarcastically. The only reason the Emperor felt affection for Princess Royal Jing’an was because she did not threaten his imperial power. Had she been a brother of the same mother, it was doubtful the Emperor would have been as affectionate towards her. Even more, to cement this brotherly love, Princess Royal Jing’an would have been better off giving birth to a daughter, rather than a son.
“This lowly servant understands”, Lu Yan nonetheless affirmed.
Emperor Cheng Yuan stood up, walking towards his nephew. Patting Lu Yan’s shoulder affectionately, he walked by him.
“It is getting late. You should go back.”
Lu Yan looked at the Emperor’s back, following on his steps, but always keeping a healthy distance.
It was raining outside and Yang Zong welcomed Lu Yan with a lacquered umbrella in his hand. As Lu Yan finally entered his carriage, he closed his eyes, massaging the bridge of his nose. His Imperial Uncle had a way purely his own of exhausting him. Yang Zong hesitated for a long time, seeing as his master was not in a particularly good mood, before speaking.
“Moyue brought a letter for the Young Master. Miss Shen wishes to see the Young Master.”
Lu Yan sneered. Wonderful. He only needed that one to kick up a dust now.
“What does she want?”
“The letter does not specify.”
Lu Yan’s finger tapped his kneecap a few times before he spat:
“Go to Chengyuan.”
This March rain was truly endless. It was as if the sky had decided it would drown the earth.
Shen Zhen opened a window, looking at the sky with misgiving. She did not like rain. At once, a thunderstorm announced itself ominously. As it thundered, the rain became only heavier, hammering the bluestone stairs in the yard. A strange mist seemed to rise from the ground and enveloped Shen Zhen’s small face.
He would not come. She knew he would not come. Who could under such circumstances?
She was about to close the window when she saw a strange, yellowish halo breaking through the mist. It was a single point that became larger and larger with time. It was Yang Zong! A lamp in one hand, a lacquered in the other, he was leading a silhouette clad in a black cloak to her doorstep. Lu Yan stepped into the room, sat down without ceremony and glanced at the woman by the window.
“You sent someone to find this official. Here he is. What do you want?”
Shen Zhen jumped to her feet, bowing to Lu Yan with humility.
“Your humble servant has something to beg Your Lordship for.”
She tentatively walked to his side, letting herself fall to her knees. Her movements were practiced in their elegance and would have perfectly concealed her inner turmoil if her hand had not slightly shaken as she poured Lu Yan a cup of tea.
Of course she wanted something. He was not an idiot. She would not have called for him if she did not need something. And he would certainly not have come if she had invited him to a flower-viewing banquet! Truly, what would he not do in the name of his friendship with Sui Yu?! He even entertained boring little family misses fallen from grace.
He picked the tea cup up. Shaking it, the moiré gleam of the tea made him admire. A superiorly infused tea, indeed. One should not look down on these Shen women. Everything about them was magnificent, their appearance as much as their tea-making skills.
“Father has an old illness that tortures him throughout the rainy seasons. This humble servant has bought him medicine and was wondering whether Your Lordship could—”
Before she had the time to express her full thought, Lu Yan slammed the cup onto the table, a crisp sound ominously resounding through the room. Shen Zhen trembled, a sob almost escaping her throat. He frightened, horrified, terrorized her. The smallest of his movements could silence her for eternity. And she did not have the courage to continue speaking.
Lu Yan stood up at once, leaning over and lifted Shen Zhen’s beautiful chin with two fingers. She avoided his prying eyes. The sarcasm in his voice cut right through her heart.
“Last time, it was your brother. This time, it is your father. Could it be that Miss Shen is mistaking this official for a manservant?”
There was no such thing as a Miss Shen anymore, was there? She was nothing but a despicable woman living off of a strange man. He was the one setting the rules. She truly had no business to ask for favors. At least, no business if she had nothing to give in exchange.
Tears welled up in Shen Zhen’s eyes. She was nothing but a despicable woman living off a strange man. There was no more honor, no more purity, no more innocence to defend. There was no reason for her to play the lady. After all, Miss Shen should not be considering an official of the Supreme Court as her manservant.
After an instant of hesitation, Shen Zhen mustered all the courage she would ever have in this life and snaked two thin arms around Lu Yan’s waist. Pressing her whole body against his chest, he could feel the shivers that travelled down her spine.
“It is raining so heavily outside. Your Lordship should not leave.”
Disgusted out of his mind, and somewhat titillated to his great consternation, Lu Yan grabbed onto her arms, trying to pry them away from his waist.
“Let go”, he barked.
Shen Zhen had done this much already. She would not let go.
“Shen Zhen, have you not made your unwillingness more than obvious for all this time?”
Lu Yan’s eyes were dismissive and cold, making Shen Zhen feel more inadequate than ever before.
What makes you think that I, Lu Yan, would yearn for someone like you?
“It is all my fault … I was not sensible …”
The teardrops in her eyes threatened to fall.
Seeing as she stubbornly did not let go, Lu Yan exerted a bit more strength to finally separate her arms and pulled out from her embrace. He dropped her hands in disgust. Turning on his steps, his voice held a mocking undertone as Lu Yan gave his last orders.
“If there is nothing of important in the future, do not disturb this official.”
Shen Zhen’s shoulders shook as the tears silently streamed down her cheeks. She bit her lip to the point of blood, trying to stifle the sobs. Doing her best to protect the tiniest bit of her dignity that was left to her. Looking all the more pathetic for it.
Rejected till the very end. Helpless till the very end. Humiliated till the very end.
He turned his head to cast her one last glance before stepping out into the pouring rain.
As he got into the carriage, Lu Yan annoyingly threw the hand stove Yang Zong had shoved into his hands aside and grabbed onto his jadeite ring, turning it aggressively multiple times. He could not get rid of that picture in his mind. That sad and desperate look of hers.
After a long silence, it is through clenched teeth that Lu Yan barked at Yang Zong:
“To the Zhou Residence!”
The loyal servant was dumbfounded.
“The Young Master means the residence of the President of the Central Judicial Office? That Lord Zhou?”
The President of the Central Judicial Office had quite the reputation. Some dared say that not even the Emperor’s nephew could compare to him.
Indeed, he had been born in a poor family and had had nothing but his own ability to rely on to reach the high rank he occupied. And this man, champion of the imperial examination of his time, the Emperor’s closest advisor, admired and sought by all, lived the austere life of monk, always on the fringe of a society that desperately tried to grab a bit of his glory. Both parents dead. No concubines, let alone a wife. No heir to continue his glorious line. An old bachelor, far from abandoned by the fairer sex, just indifferent to its charms. No one but an elderly steward and he himself lived in this impressive mansion, bestowed by none other than the Emperor himself.
Lu Yan demanded that Yang Zong stopped the carriage by the small gate leading to the Zhou Mansion.
The heavy knock at the gates was muffled by the aggressive rain. Nonetheless, a significant time later, an old steward dragged his venerate bones to the gate to open it. When he recognized the dark shadow at the door, he was quite surprised.
“What brings Lord Lu here?”
Lord Lu of the Supreme Court was not in the habit of visiting their Zhou household. Not that anyone else was.
“Is Lord Zhou home?”
“Yes, yes. His Lordship is in the study.”
The steward quickly stepped aside, motioning for Lu Yan to enter.
The Zhou Mansion had been specially built for Zhou Shu’an at the demand of the Emperor. He had only moved in at the beginning of the year. It was spacious enough, with three entrances and a few courtyards that had been meant to suit the tastes of women, and were as desolate as could be. It was obvious however that Lord Zhou had chosen his own furnishings. They were as simple and understated as the gentleman himself.
Lu Yan followed the steward, not the least bit annoyed by the slow speed of the old servant’s steps. He was led into a small courtyard that served as
Only two candles cast their eerie shadows throughout the hallway. A small door was pushed open with a creak revealing Zhou Shuan, seated at a table, scribbling with determination. Lord Zhou’s obsession with his work was legendary. He did not leave the brush even in the intimacy of his own dwelling.
A high nose, sharp eyebrows and a thin face, he was the kind of man whose facial bones were so delicate they would have suited a woman better. And those eyes! Clear as spring at first glance, but gleaming with a light that only more than twenty years of experience could produce. He was characterized by the calmness of an old official who had gained experience in performing his duties with care.
Therefore, when he saw Lu Yan entering his small office, he was surprised in the least, though he could not guess what it was the Emperor’s nephew wanted with him.
“Lord Lu, please take a seat”, he simply offered, pointing the brush in his hand in front of himself.
It was pouring outside and therefore Lu Yan could not help but to be at least partially soaked, making him look somewhat ridiculous. Zhou Shu’an was the President of the Central Judicial Office and the smallest of details was not lost to him. Why would the steady, and somewhat arrogant, Young Master Lu be coming to visit him in such a weather? Zhou Shu’an’s curiosity was titillated to say the least.
“Lord Lu visiting this humble representative of the Zhou household makes him fear that something of great importance must have brought Lord Lu here.”
“Lord Zhou owes this humble representative of the Lu family a favor.”
He stared right at Zhou Shu’an with a gaze that spoke of a feeling not far-removed from obsession.
Zhou Shu’an could not help but smile at the mention of the favor. Ah, yes, indeed. That favor. Far from him to disagree. He did indeed owe Lord Lu.
Three years ago, prisoners at the Central Judicial Office had gotten it into their heads to light a fire, leading to the scape of three Southern Zhao spies. If their escape had been discovered, Zhao Shu’an would have been accused of treason and his head would have flown.
(Translator’s Note: Southern Zhao was a dynastic kingdom between 738 and 902 that stretched out between China and Vietnam, passing through Lao and Myanmar. It was preceded by the Tibetan Empire and succeeded by the Dali State – Southern Dali, not the northern Dali Principality at the border with the Xianbei.)
He was an official with no background. He had no family to protect him. He was at all times walking on a tightrope. In fact, one could say that this was still the case. The fact was, the smallest misstep would have given reason enough for the whole Hall of Officials to trample Zhou Shu’an underfoot, dragging his innocent family name in the mud.
In desperation, Zhou Shu’an had rushed to Lu Yan to beg for help. The eldest son of Grand Duke Zhen and of Princess Royal Jing’an was not only rich to the point of obscenity and powerful to the point of dangerousness, he was also more favored by the Emperor than the Imperial Princes of the palace. Zhou Shu’an had long thought about how to approach such a hegemon. He had however not expected that Lu Yan would immediately agree on lending a helping hand, without even mentioning terms. The two Southern Zhao spies had been recuperated and the affair skillfully hushed. Dwelling agreeable on the past, Zhou Shu’an raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Lord Lu, I am all ears.”
Lu Yan’s mouth tightened into an unhappy line.
“I wish to have a doctor visit the Central Judicial Office tomorrow.”
Zhou Shu’an’s eyes darkened, his curiosity all the more exacerbated. Who, among his good prisoners, has had the obvious luck to catch this Young Master’s eye?
“Permit me to ask Lord Lu, who is to see the doctor?”
“The former Marquis Yunyang, Shen Wenqi.”
Zhou Shu’an was taken aback. Even someone as scheming as himself could be tricked by this Lord Lu of the Supreme Court.
This was not something Lu Yan would ever do. He was not the type to meddle in the affairs of others, especially not those the Emperor despised. And contempt was the least of the emotions the Emperor fell towards Shen Wenqi. Admiration, reliance … fear. And Zhou Shu’an did not blame the Emperor. He too admired this Marquis Yunyang of the Crown Prince’s faction.
An official for over twenty years, Marquis Yunyang had always been renowned for his diligence and honesty. Never neglecting his duty. His contributions to their Da Jin Empire were innumerable. There was not a dam, not a canal that had not been designed or preapproved by him. Until that unfortunate accident happened.
Had it not been for that canal, one wondered whether the Crown Prince would not have finally succeeded in stabilizing his position with the help of a man such as the Marquis Yunyang. Because, in the end, that was Shen Wenqi’s only crime. He had stood by the Crown Prince’s side when he had been abandoned by all. Who had ever seen a Minister of Industry and Engineering hold his ground against a Prime Minister whose daughter was Empress Consort and a General who had more military decorations than there were stars in the skies?
The fact the Emperor had not liked the late Empress Consort had spread like a wildfire as soon as she had taken place by the Emperor’s side on her throne. She had been too dignified, too disciplined and industrious, never putting her innocent beauty at the service of the Emperor, but rather trying to foster harmony and camaraderie between Emperor Cheng Yuan’s multitudes of women. When she had given birth to the Crown Prince, the Emperor had lost even his reproductive use in her eyes. She had invested all of her energy to raise that beloved baby, gift of the Heavens and reward for her suffering. It was a tragedy in itself that she had left him too early, a little Crown Prince who, in the eyes of his own Imperial Father, was nothing but a pawn used to maintain equilibrium among the officials. In fact, there were nothing but four eunuchs serving at his side and it was a fact the Crown Prince had to battle with servants to even have coal to warm himself during the winter.
As for the Zhen Grand Duchy, it was well-known that Princess Royal Jing’an worshipped her Imperial Brother like one worships a Buddha. She cared little for the Imperial Princes, even less for the Imperial Princesses, and the whole Grand Duchy followed on her steps. They served the Emperor, and only the Emperor. Therefore, why would the heir to the Grand Duchy go to the trouble of making Shen Wenqi’s life in prison a little less unbearable. After all, Princess Jing’an, Lu Yan’s mother, must have wanted to rip out poor Marquis Yunyang’s throat out.
Zhou Shu’an did not speak for a long while.
Everyone in Chang’an had their own preferred faction. Some participated actively. Others silently, onlookers cheering from the sides. The Zhen Grand Duchy truly was the exception that confirmed the rule. After all, no matter who gets the upper hand and attains the highest of positions, the Zhen Grand Duchy was too grand not to be respected and not to retain all the advantages of its own station in society.
Zhou Shu’an let the pitter-patter of rain lull him into a sort of sleepless dream. The brush spun between his fingers.
“And thus, Third Miss Shen is in Lord Lu’s hands”, Zhou Shu’an calmly concluded.
That charming Third Shen who had disappeared out of thin air as soon as the Yunyang Mansion had fallen. Countless were the people who would have given an arm to find her, but could not. Among those people there were many high-ranking officials of the court, with all sorts of means. Zhou Shu’an finally understood. One dared spy on the Emperor. But no one dared as much as look askew at the Zhen Grand Duchy.
Lu Yan did not even bat a lash, his face as stern as if he were at the Supreme Court.
“This humble representative of the Lu household begs Lord Lu to remember that he is not a prisoner of the Central Judicial Office.”
Zhou Shu’an smiled and nodded. What was it to him where that Third Shen was?!
“When does Lord Lu plan on sending the doctor tomorrow?”
“Between seven and nine o’clock in the morning”, Lu Yan carelessly replied.
At those words, he got to his feet.
“Lord Zhou can organize the rest.”
As the door was closing behind his back, he only heard a pensive whisper.
“Marquis Yunyang might be a bit of a pedant, but he did raise two good daughters.”
Before Lu Yan had the chance to leave for the Zhen Ducal Estate, Yang Zong passed on yet another message to him. Tangyue was frightened because Shen Zhen had supposedly come down with a serious illness all of a sudden.
Lu Yan truly had no desire to go back to Chengyuan. But for whatever reason out of his own control, he did decide to do nothing but.
Lu Yan briskly walked into Shen Zhen’s chambers, approaching the bed silently. Looking down into that pale, sleeping face, he found himself at loss for an instant, not knowing why he had come. As if feeling something was amiss, Shen Zhen’s eyes fluttered open and she realized someone was looming above her. A cold shiver ran down her spine. Lu Yan.
He, for his part, only turned the jadeite ring on his finger.
“Your acting skills are improving.”
Shen Zhen’s eyes filled with tears. She was aware he was implying that her illness was nothing but an act. She bit her lip to keep herself from sobbing.
“It was not my intention.”
Lu Yan was left silent. It took him a long while before he resumed speaking.
“There is no need to worry for your father’s illness. A doctor has been sent to visit him.”
Shen Zhen was taken aback. She had not … She did not … She had thought he had rejected her plea. Hurriedly bowing her head in gratitude, no other words came to Shen Zhen’s mind but the customary ‘thank you, Your Lordship’. Lu Yan raised his hand, flicking her jaw carelessly. Leaning in, she could feel his cool breath brushing against her lips. He was jeering at her, she knew.
“Two words? Is that all I will get in return for my efforts?”
Shen Zhen reached for his playful hand reverently, her taper fingers caressing his palm alluringly.
“Today is not a good day. I worry I might make Your Lordship sick. Can we not another time?”
Hearing as much, Lu Yan smiled to himself. What did he look like in her eyes? A lecher?! Well, who was he to disappoint a beauty?! If she expected a debauched official …
Lu Yan’s heart went up in flames. He domineeringly pressed his lips against hers, his tongue slipping into her mouth. Shen Zhen’s whole body trembled. In a subconscious movement, Shen Zhen pushed him away once more. As soon as she had done as much, she knew she had committed the equivalent of a sin. She quickly lowered her head, cowering in horror.
“Your Lordship, please forgive me … Forgive me …”
Lu Yan stared at her with rage, laughing angrily.
“Does it amuse you to welcome me only to refuse me? Shen Zhen, what is this game you are playing at? I am not forcing you, you are the one wilfully seducing me.”
Shen Zhen feared any misunderstandings with such a man. She had no choice but to bear her soul to his cold, prying eyes. Through clenched teeth, swallowing a sob, she admitted the truth.
“Your Lordship, today is the seventh of March … It is my mother’s deathday.”
Waking up with a start, Lu Yan sat up suddenly, reaching for his sweat-drenched forehead.
Synopsis: The online game <